Tuesday, April 29, 2014

April '14 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Big Bad Wolves
That this gripping Israeli thriller was named best movie of 2013 by Quentin Tarantino gave me pause, since I don’t share his taste for trashy flicks: but directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s shocking revenge drama is riveting throughout—at least until an ending that reeks of desperation. Showing how ordinary people can do horrible things—like kidnaping and torturing a man suspected of brutally murdering children—the directors show off endless style to spare. The Blu-ray image looks stellar; extras are making-of featurettes.

The Demons
Director Jess Franco—never one to shy away from controversy—made his own Satanic nuns/witches entry in 1973, a couple of years after Ken Russell’s own blatantly pornographic Inquisition horror flick, The Devils. In Franco’s version, nubile young nuns hike up their outfits and writhe around in their beds, often with political and religious leaders for hypocritical shenanigans. Although extremely risible, Franco’s belief in his film’s seriousness keeps it watchable; a few sexy actresses also help his cause. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras include a Franco interview and deleted footage.

Gimme Shelter
Despite Vanessa Hudgens giving her all as a runaway teen trying to improve life for herself and her unborn baby, this crassly manipulative drama based on a true story is directed with a sledgehammer by Ronald Krauss, who sees spiritual uplift where others see dramatic clichés. A frightening turn by Rosario Dawson as her drugged-up mother and an inspirational appearance by James Earl Jones as a good reverend help those not in thrall to the message keep watching. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras include deleted scenes with commentary and making-of featurette.

The Inspector Lavardin Collection
(Cohen Media)
Claude Chabrol’s two feature films starring his favorite detective—Chicken with Vinegar (1985) and the eponymously titled Inspector Lavardin (1986)—are impeccably crafted, naturally, yet are otherwise small-scale murder mysteries long on atmosphere but short on wit. Jean Poiret’s inspector seems more at home in the two Chabrol-helmed TV mysteries included as bonuses—The Black Snail (1988) and Danger Lies in the Words (1989)—which are more entertaining than the features. The movies look good if soft on Blu-ray; extras on the features are audio commentaries.

Mr. Selfridge—Complete Season 2
The second season of this absorbing series about how American Harry Selfridge built London’s biggest department store at the turn of the last century is another superior soap opera, its plot threads showing characters like Jeremy Piven’s self-absorbed Selfridge and a glamorous Frances O’Connor as his wife in their overlapping professional and personal lives. Especially for those who can’t wait for their next Downton Abbey fix, this is an excellent (and highly original) substitute. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras include a behind the scenes featurette and deleted scenes.

Il Sorpasso
The English title, The Easy Life, perfectly encapsulates Dino Risi’s brilliantly ironic comedy that careers into tragedy in its final moments, as playboy Vittorio Gassman and naïve student Jean-Louis Trintignant (both never better) aimlessly root around Tuscan and Roman roads one weekend. Risi, an uneven director, made this singular masterpiece and decent films like Scent of a Woman (not the awful Pacino remake); Criterion’s release marries a typically splendid hi-def transfer with a plethora of extras like interviews with Risi, Trintignant and Gassman, documentary excerpts and a 2006 doc about Risi, A Beautiful Vacation.

Super Skyscrapers
This fascinating mini-series, which takes the measure of 21st century building, highlights a quartet of new skyscrapers that defy the usual blueprint of finding ways to go higher, literally and figuratively: Manhattan’s Freedom Tower and One57, London’s Leadenhall Building and China’s Shanghai Tower. Covering the many months of planning and construction, the four hour-long programs provide revealing close-ups of how technology continues to revolutionize how we live and build in increasingly smaller spaces. The hi-def transfer is superlative.

DVDs of the Week
The Best Offer
In Giuseppe Tornatore’s latest melodrama, Geoffrey Rush plays an unscrupulous auctioneer intrigued by a disturbed young woman who wants to sell her family’s heirloom artworks while (literally) hiding behind a family secret. Rush makes a properly flawed hero, Sylvia Hoeks is beguilingly fresh as the mystery woman, but Tornatore never quite gets a handle on this intense and at times overripe material.

The Black Torment
This old-fashioned atmospheric horror film remakes Rebecca (sort of) as the master of the mansion discovers he may have a murderous doppelgänger out there killing innocent townspeople. In the lead, John Turner does a decent job, as does the rest of the cast; director Robert Hartford-Davis keeps the dramatic clichés to a minimum while moving along to an obvious but satisfying finish. The lone extra is a director interview.

Chilean director-writer Sebastian Lelio’s immersive character study about a middle-aged divorcee who enters into a tentative relationship with an older man is centered on the remarkable Paulina Garcia in the title role. By not making her a caricature or blatantly begging for sympathy, Garcia makes Gloria a nuanced and immensely sympathetic character whose sexuality is made plausible but remains in the context of this ordinary woman who’s really quite extraordinary. Extras are onset footage set to the film’s songs.

To Chris Marker An Unsent Letter
(Icarus Films)
Made by his frequent collaborator, photographer Emiko Omori, this look back at the singular artistry of meta-cinematic genius Chris Marker—creator of the classics La Jetee and Sans Soleil—has a personal, home-movie quality that will please Marker’s admirers. The reminiscences—from fans, fellow artists and film historians—show a healthy, even humorous appreciation for Marker the man as well as the director, including a priceless anecdote about how the publicity-shy Marker made his own image disappear from a photograph on public display.

Trap for Cinderella
(IFC Midnight)
In Iain Softley’s unnerving thriller, Tuppence Middleton and Alexandra Roach give ferocious portrayals of friends torn apart by a fatal fire that one survives without any memory of what happened—or does she? Softley lets the facts slowly but surely become uncovered, but his leading actresses—and the always sublime Frances De La Tour and Kerry Fox in small but pivotal roles—make this a tense nail-biter. Extras are interviews.

CDs of the Week
John Adams—The Gospel According to the Other Mary
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Composer John Adams’ “passion oratorio” is certainly a heavy-duty, serious piece: but, much like Peter Sellars’ diffuse libretto comprising bits from the Bible along with words from personalities as diverse as 12th century mystic Hildegard von Bingen and 20th century writer primo Levi, Adams’ patchy music moves from soaring chorales to dully minimalist vocal lines. Despite the shaky dramatics, it’s beautifully performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, a vocally strong cast led by Kelley O’Connor and Tamara Mumford, all held together by conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Olga Peretyatko—Arabesque
(Sony Classical)
Sure, she’s a charming, lovely, talented Russian soprano, but please don’t call Olga Peretyatko a new Anna Netrebko (not even Netrebko is Anna Netrebko any more): she has a vocal style all her own, as she proves repeatedly on this buoyant collection of virtuoso arias and songs from heavy hitters Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Gounod and Bizet. Peretyatko’s creamy soprano sounds luminous on all 13 of this disc’s tracks, and conductor Enrique Mazzola and the NDR Symphony Orchestra provide her with accompaniment as sensitive and exacting as her singing.

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